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From Forced Relocation to Reconciliation

In this episode we talk with Shannon Perez about what reconciliation looks like in light of her personal story and her First Nation's story. Shannon is the director of the Indigenous Family Centre (a CRC ministry with Indigenous people in Winnipeg). Shannon is a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation, and lives in Winnipeg with her husband and children.

The following is a transcript of Season 6 Episode 2 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hi there friends, and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. Today I am excited to be joined by Shannon Perez. Shannon is the director of the Indigenous Family Center, a Christian Reformed Church Ministry with Indigenous People in Winnipeg. Shannon is a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation and lives in Winnipeg with her husband and children. Shannon, thank you for joining us today. Welcome.

Shannon: And thank you.

Chris: I mentioned, Shannon, that you're a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation – a nation that was relocated under duress to a non-traditional location. Can you tell us a little of this story from your perspective?

Shannon: Learning about the story of the relocation, it was a story that I did grow up with. I remember sharing and talking about it in high school, like writing a paper about it in high school. My mom had grown up in Churchill, so she grew up right as a young – as a baby – growing up in that non-traditional land that was fraught with, just a whole lot of racism and discrimination and a loss of a way of life. That whole community, that whole generation, and even the elders at that time, having lost their connection with the land, the parents at that time trying to raise little kids in unfamiliar territory; a different economy, a community that treated them with disdain and like trash… They were treated like trash.

Chris: Tell us a little bit about where your people were. And where they were moved to because it's a big distance. Someone who might be listening, it's like “Well I mean, moving over to Churchill, Manitoba, how bad could that be?” But could we talk about the difference between the two places as far as the land and how your people lived in the traditional land versus how they were forced to live in the relocated space?

Shannon: Yeah, so our traditional land is northern Manitoba and into some of the land that we now know as Nunavut. So you got southern Nunavut and then northern Manitoba. Not close to Hudson's Bay, but more on the inside. And then the Dene actually go all the way to BC and to the West Coast. It goes all the way there. So Sayisi Dene means, you know, Sayisi means east, so we're the most eastern people. And so we're northern Manitoba. 

The Sayisi Dene followed the migration of the caribou. That was their sustenance. So down south in Manitoba and to the States, the bison were the sustenance. And so up north, it was the caribou. Everything was from the caribou. So living… they had cabins that they went back to in seasons. They followed the trap line, they followed the caribou. So that was in their area: Nunavut, southern Nunavut, to Northern Manitoba was their traditional land. 

So there was trees there – trees. You go to Churchill and it's barren. The landscape is rocky. It's barren; doesn’t have a whole lot of trees. Not the same kind of terrain. Churchill was an up-and-coming army town. So there is an army base. It was also a port for the big boats and ships. So it was a whole different economy from a traditional lifestyle of following the caribou.

Chris: So your nation received some funds from the government to make restitution for these wrongs. And as you tell this story, was this a step toward reconciliation for you?

Shannon: It was – it is – a step. And it was a long time coming. Restitution, we could also say it was a settlement, it wasn't compensation. Right, it was a settlement for what Canada had done wrong. So it was a long time coming. Probably the late ‘90s/early 2000s was when it really started the process about the relocation and fighting in the courts, bringing it to courts, going into the courts. It wasn't until August 2016 when we actually got a formal apology from the government of Canada. So August 16, 2016, was when we heard the apology from the government and that the settlement offer included financial money in the form of a trust and an apology. There still had to be land settled for the treaty, for treaty lands, for the reserve for Tadoule Lake. So that still had to be, not taken care – well it had to be taken care of – but that had to be also settled too.

Chris: And maybe just tell our listeners a bit – because the names are coming a little fast, right? So tell our listeners, where is Tadoule Lake as compared to where Churchill was and where your ancestral lands were. Give us a little bit of the geography.

Shannon: Yeah, yeah, if you look on a map, Winnipeg is pretty much, almost in the middle of Manitoba. If you were to go straight up, up north, north, and then you go right across to where Churchill is. So where those 2 lines meet, that’s approximately where Tadoule Lake would be.

So, after the forced relocation to Churchill, A few years – I think it was about 13 to 17 years – there was talk about “It's not good here, it's not healthy, we should move back to the land.” So, Tadoule Lake was one of the lands that they looked at that they felt that they could go back and settle in as they recognized it as land that they have used as part of their route and their lands. It was a place that they have gone to in the past. So they recognized it and they saw that it could sustain a community. So Tadoule Lake straight up from Winnipeg almost, and then if you find Churchill straight across and that's approximately where Tadoule Lake is.

Chris: Yeah, that's helpful. Kind of gives us a picture. So from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Maybe back to the familiar. But we were talking about restitution. We were talking about funds. I think one of the questions would be… It sounds bad enough to be taken forcibly, removed from your home, forcibly removed from the land and the space that is so familiar. But could you maybe talk about the impact? I had the fortune of being part of the Hearts Exchanged cohort where I got to hear a little bit of this story. And, in your telling of that story in that setting, you talk a little bit about the impact on your family, you talk about your mom. Can you share a little bit about what the relocation did to your family? What was life like?

Shannon: For my mom and people of her generation and the generation before and my generation, it was tough. My mom had to grow up in Churchill; faced a lot of discrimination. On top of the relocation, there is also residential schools happening in the families, in the communities. So you had that layer. You also had the Sixties Scoop going on. So you had people being scooped off and adopted out of the community. You had that happening, you also had the missing and murdered indigenous women happening, the violence against the men. So you had all of those many layers happening, and to a small community. As a result, well from the relocation they say about one-third of community members perished and I would say unnaturally, from the elements of Churchill, from violence, from fires. So it was a very… there's a lot of tragedy that was taking place in a short amount of time to people who are trying to cope with such a different displacement. Churchill wasn’t a place where they hunted, there is no caribou around. Unfamiliarity with the economy, cause there was, the fort, the Hudson's Bay Fort, that also was there so they understood trade and bartering and whatnot. But you can imagine the stark difference of what it was like actually living in a town, not just visiting and doing your trade and whatnot and then going back to your community. You're living in this unfamiliar town for a longer period of time and it wasn't friendly, wasn't friendly at all. Especially, again, residential schools, Sixties Scoop, the treatment of the women, you had all of that going on at the same time. 

Chris: So this is the why of the restitution; why would the government seek to make restitution? This is the legacy of damage and harm that came with this decision. Just the question, this is something that we've been talking about throughout this series of shows, we're centered on reconciliation. But was this a step towards reconciliation for you? And what does it look like? How have you experienced it?

Shannon: So was it a step in reconciliation? I guess one step was feeling the apology, hearing the apology. For myself, there is a feeling like: okay, yes, what we were feeling wasn't made up. We went through something horrible, tragic – it did a lot of harm. We're missing a lot of family and community members. And the ones that are surviving, their quality of life isn't what it could have been? So the apology, that was a step that said yes, we were wronged. So in that sense, I would say that is a step.

Chris: Part of our audience – a huge part of our audience – is our church folk, in particular the Christian Reformed Church, across North America and around the world. Can you tell us a story about what reconciliation means for the church?

Shannon: Oh, that's a loaded question.

Chris: Only softball questions here, Shannon. 

Shannon: Let us solve the world's problems.

Chris: If we could just, in this in this 30-minute space, if we could just solve all of that and give everybody a blueprint, that would be fantastic.

Shannon: So there's a lot. When I talked about all the harm that was going on to the Sayisi Dene community, like the residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the missing and murdered, right? Those are all different layers. So even in reconciliation, there's different levels and layers you could work on. And one thing – a couple of things – that I think of is, sometimes in churches there is a fear, or there's a position where church and state need to be different, right? So you gotta keep that separate. You just think about the ecclesiastical stuff, the church, and stay with that and leave the other stuff for outside of church. But there's a time and place where they do have to meet because we do have a legislation called the Indian Act. Under the Indian Act, it governs legislators’ law for Indigenous people, and that affects me. So when we talk about reconciliation in a church, and they're like, we gotta keep it separate. Well, if you want to reconcile with indigenous people, you will have to look at the civil aspects too because in trying to reconcile someone with myself, I'm under this law, so you can't separate it. So, in that sense, all Canadians are under and have inherited this law as well. And how do you reconcile it in a way that everyone benefits, with equity?

Chris: Yeah, I like that. I think too, that's something that can be… we ask the big, sort of meta question of the church, but even that same question can apply – and the way you answered – to the individual as well. Begin to ask the questions, and begin to find the information that you need. We, at my church, we're reading the book 21 Things You Didn't Know about the Indian Act. I think that's what it's called. I forget the exact name of the book, but that has been an eye-opening experience and I think it's helped our church but also us as individuals to be able to engage with the conversation, as a starting point. I want to end on some exciting or some good news. How have you seen churches support reconciliation in a good way? We've talked about Hearts Exchanged, so maybe we could give a shout out to the Hearts Exchanged program. I'm a big fan. I'm always going to be boosting that one. So that's a starting place, maybe talk about that. But what have you seen? What are you observing as far as this reconciliation journey from churches?

Shannon: Yeah, so from churches, it's just all the steps, all the steps that people are taking. When I graduated from high school, I wasn't quite ready to go to university. I took time off and I worked in a restaurant business. I was in a staff room once and a cook had commented that this all happened in the past, to the effect of get over it, 200 years ago. And I remember thinking, no, my mom is still alive. It happened to my mom. She was 40 years old at that time. It's very much present day. And, I did go to university to learn about it. I majored in Native Studies, as it was called back then. And I learned about it because I wanted to be able to talk to people and say, “I have a degree in this.” Like, you could believe me. I'm just not playing the victim. There are facts. There are relocations that took place that shouldn't have happened. And, coming out of university, a little bit later on, I did go back to church, the Christian Reformed Church, a little bit. I went to a Canadian Indigenous Ministry Committee meeting and I couldn't believe how people were, in that one meeting, people were open to Indigenous people and being Christian. Because, while going to university, it was very secular. I was learning all about the policies, the Indian acts, the legislation, land claims, regarding, indigenous issues. So, there is still a lot of harm that churches were doing and what wasn't being talked about back then about the harm that churches have done. So the steps taken, like being in a place where it felt safe. That you didn't have to choose one or the other, because there were attitudes and legislation that made it so people had to choose. That's a big step, right? The creation of the Indigenous Family Center and then the Indigenous Christian Fellowship and then the Edmonton Native Healing Center. Those are steps too, funding a place where indigenous people could come to without having to make sure there's a choice in their identity. So I think what churches can continue doing is looking at why there is a fear or a mistrust with ways of being indigenous and choosing to be a Christian. Trusting that God is bigger than all of that. So I see those steps. 

And then the, I want to say the explosion, of the Hearts Exchanged. That started out as a small church group, and it led to a little bit more formal with two cohorts – pilot cohorts – and then it grew into a more formal curriculum, to going across the country and then it's still continuing. Those are all steps as well. People are understanding the impact, where it came from, and the damage of having to choose – especially when an identity hat was taken away because that was what the legislation was for – to get rid of the Indian. So, there's a lot of reckoning that has to come with what was taken away.

Identity is a really big… What we really need to work on with reconciliation too. Identity and language, identity and self-governance, identity… Yeah, there's all of those things, all of the parts that the church has to make it at church. All of that was taken away from indigenous people. So now, how do you support reclaiming all that was taken away?

Chris: Shannon, thanks for, I think, painting the picture with such clarity. But here's my concern. My concern is that we'll have a listener, we'll have some folks who are listening, who are saying that the decisions that affected your people, “That wasn't my church. That wasn't me. I wasn't even here when those decisions were made.” What do we say to folks like that? How do we invite them into this reconciliation journey?

Shannon: Yeah, that's probably one of the things we have come across as well. “That didn't happen. I didn't do that. I wasn't there. Again, happened many years ago.” So a couple of things. I remember reading a quote and I'll do my best to paraphrase. Just to try to get the essence of the point of what it was. But it was the former prime minister, Paul Martin. He had said – it was in an interview that he did. He's saying it was as if he was talking to his granddaughter and his granddaughter said, all of that stuff happened. And if he can't say something to the effect that I knew about it and I made a difference. Then he should feel guilty about that. Not feel guilty because he did it, but feel guilty because he didn’t take any steps to make a change. And you know, I still think about that, right? What can you do to make a difference? We all live in this place called Canada, whether we were born here or whether we came here. So we're all a part of – by living here, we all inherited, you know. Indigenous people, we get taught the treaties. Our people talk about the treaties. We talk about the benefits that we get from the treaties – a bit, they're getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. But we also understand the injustices that are facing us, because provisions that are in treaties are not honored, right? But the other people that live in Canada that are not indigenous are not being taught those treaties, those commitments between First Nations people and the crown. So going back to that quote,  if I didn't make a difference then I could feel guilty, I should feel guilty for not making a difference. Learning the history, what a lot of Canadians haven't been taught, there's also reckoning with that as well because Canadians weren't given the chance to meet those – not the requirements, but the honour in keeping a commitment. There's integrity in that. And a lot of Canadians also weren't given that opportunity to keep the integrity of the treaties, if they weren't taught about it.

Chris: Shannon, I wanna say thank you. Thank you for being here with us today. Thank you for sharing your story, and thank you for the grace and the invitation that you give us to learn more, to go deeper. Our guest today has been Shannon Perez. If you want to learn more about what the Christian Reformed Church is doing in the area of Indigenous ministries, in the area of reconciliation, you can visit You will there learn all about the Hearts Exchanged program. You can read articles on what it means to invite an indigenous speaker into your church – into your space – and find deeper paths of learning and learn to be agents of reconciliation. Thanks again, Shannon, for being with us today.

Shannon: Thank you for having me.


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